Overview: Moscow Flexes Political Muscle

Russian President VVladimir Putin delivers speech at Munich security conference

Russian President Vladimir Putin brimmed with anti-Western rhetoric at a security conference in Munich last month. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

When Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped up to the podium at a security conference in Munich last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top Western officials at the meeting were in for a surprise: Putin unleashed an angry barrage of criticism against the West — chiefly the United States — for trying to force its will on the world.

"Unilateral, often illegitimate, actions haven't solved a single problem," he said. "More than that, they've generated new human tragedies and sources of tension."

Putin's "Munich speech" drew instant comparisons to another diplomatic outburst: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's notorious shoe-thumping at the United Nations 50 years ago, during an angry outburst against Western imperialism.

Speculation about a possible new Cold War may have been exactly what the Russian president wanted. Fifteen years after the Soviet Union's collapse, the Kremlin is once again bidding for great-power status on the world stage.

Booming sales of oil and gas are driving Russia's economy to new levels, and Moscow is eager to prove that its humiliating years of post-Communist uncertainty are over.

But Russia under Putin is far from the kind of democratic society Western countries believed would develop from the Soviet Union's ashes in 1991. The president has ended democratic reforms and reinstituted authoritarian rule, curtailed freedoms and returned parts of the economy to state control. And he has introduced an aggressive foreign policy that opposes Western countries on issues such as the war in Iraq and the expansion of NATO.

Putin's policies have made him hugely popular at home, where he's appointed former KGB officers like himself and other loyal officials to key positions in government and business. Putin, who is barred by the Russian Constitution from serving a third term, is so powerful that any favored successor he names will almost certainly win the presidential election next year.

As a newly stable Russia prepares for the post-Putin era, NPR examines what kind of country it has become, and whether there is a real chance for a new Cold War between the aspiring energy superpower and the West.

New Cold War: Part 1 examines Russian foreign policy, the motivation behind anti-Western rhetoric, and whether Russia can pose a true threat to Western countries' security. Moscow has flexed its muscles by hiking gas prices and cutting energy supplies to its neighbors, while Washington has accused the Kremlin of using energy as a political tool to blackmail and threaten pro-Western rivals.

The Soviet Union: Part 2 explores the extent of Russia's new authoritarian culture — and its similarities to the old Soviet Union. Although critics say Putin has brought back many of the old dictatorship's traits, Russians today can travel freely and read what they want, and the country is undergoing a huge consumer boom.

Dissidents: Part 3 takes a look at some of the country's leading human rights activists and whether they are part of a new generation of dissidents. The government has recently cracked down against rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations, while the recent murders of some of the Kremlin's top critics has drawn comparisons with KGB practices under the Soviet Union.

Democracy: Part 4 assesses the reforms of the 1990s, during which post-communist Russia embarked on major changes meant to transform it into a capitalist democracy. Putin is often praised for bringing an end to what's seen as the rule of chaos and corruption under former President Boris Yeltsin. But many of the officials who ran the government under Yeltsin say that's not the case. They say Putin put an end to a period of dynamic democratizing reform and allowed corruption to balloon since he came to power in 2000.

U.S. Foreign Policy: Part 5 examines U.S. foreign policy toward Russia. In 2001, President Bush famously said he had looked into Putin's soul and liked what he saw. But now, relations between Washington and Moscow are at their lowest level since the Cold War, and Washington faces the need to adjust its attitude to Russia's re-emerging role in global affairs.

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